Tense, painful muscles all over the body can be repaired by different forms of compression, percussion and massage. Pressing firmly into tender, achy muscle provides ischemic compression, which forces the blood out of the tissue and then when released increases blood flow. Performed regularly, compression will restore the muscle’s blood supply, range of motion, strength, and regenerative capacity as well as reduce tension and pain. Muscle compression should be used together with diaphragmatic breathing, exercise, and reduction of bracing.
Chapter 6: Release Tense Muscle with Compression and Massage
The Power of Massage to Alleviate Tension Insanity
A close friend of mine has had a few psychotic episodes where he became totally delusional for several days. His breakdowns were so severe that on three separate occasions he required hospitalization. He had previously been diagnosed with bipolar disorder as well as schizophrenia, and there were a number of precipitating stressors. His mother had recently died of cancer and his father had been murdered years before. He had dealt with a good amount of bullying from hardened, streetwise tough guys. He had gone through a harsh breakup, had been homeless for months, and he drank large amounts of caffeine every day. In the days before hospitalization his thinking would become severely deranged. He was convinced his friends were saints and that he was an angel responsible for preventing an ensuing apocalypse. On one occasion his state regressed to the point of catatonia, which has also been called “tension insanity.” A common friend asked me to come over to help and I found our buddy standing rigidly, shaking, and staring vacantly at the wall with a pained expression on his face. He did not respond to speech or any form of communication. He squinted heavily. The circles under his eyes had become much darker. He made no eye contact and stared at the floor. He was previously a conscientious person but was now urinating and defecating in his shorts. Each breath he took lasted about half of a second and his tidal range was minimal.
The most salient characteristic was his physical bearing. I had never noticed that his posture was bad before. He was 25 but he looked like a very old, very sick man. He looked fragile and the tension in his neck and back looked excruciating. I felt I was looking directly at his “pain body.” Having lost all concern about self-presentation, he looked as if he had been standing in a cold shower for hours. All of his muscles were braced. I recognized his abhorrent posture as the pain we all carry and attempt to conceal. At that point I realized that if I were in a catatonic state that my postural deformities would similarly rise to the surface. There was nothing we could do to move his rigid frame down the stairs and into the car. When we tried to carry him he would shake and moan violently. I realized that there was one way to get him to the hospital. I started massaging him. I started with his neck, and moved on to his shoulders and back. His back felt crooked, the curvature was unnatural and deformed. At first his spine resisted my efforts, but every minute he loosened up a bit more. After ten minutes he started crying and after 30 minutes he was able to take baby steps to the car and sit down inside it.
From just one of his three hospital visits he owed more than $100,000 for treatment. I asked him what the doctors did for him that cost this much and he said that they kept him in bed and gave him drugs for two weeks. He actually became dependent on the drugs and had to be weaned off them. Aside from removing him from his stressful environment, I don’t think the drugs or doctors provided any long-term benefit. I believe that 40, hour-long, deep tissue, full body massages would have largely rehabilitated him. At $50 per massage, this would have cost around $2,000. If this had been his treatment I think there is a good chance that he would have been a new man and may never have gone back to a mental institution. If he had been given $100,000 worth of massage therapy this would have bought him 2,000 massages. That equates to an hour long massage every week for 40 years. If I had been in charge of his health I know what I would have invested the money in.
Use Compression to Remove Trigger Points, Scar Tissue, and Muscle Shortening
Recent estimates suggest that around 98 percent of the atoms in the body are replaced every year. Despite this constant remodeling, the body does an incredible job of preserving muscle trauma. It does this because it treats muscle trauma as an important form of memory. Our organism trusts and values the specific pattern of trauma distribution throughout our body because it is a historical record informing us exactly how best to be defensive. We were designed to conserve our tension, increase it as necessary, and die with it, but not to reverse it.
There is no pill you can take to remove the physical manifestations of your muscular tension. Compared to many other diseases and disorders there is very little active biomedical research on alleviating or curing muscular strain. Some researchers attempt to treat trigger points with injections, therapeutic ultrasound, or transcutaneous electrical stimulation. Unfortunately, none of these have proven very effective yet. I think basic and preclinical research on the issue should be given the highest priority in medicine, especially because tension is a contributing factor to a large number of mental and physical diseases. The complete eradication of muscular strain will eventually be accomplished by molecular pharmacologists but it will take decades for such a panacea to surface. Our bodies don’t have decades. Physical compression or massage combined with diaphragmatic breathing is by far the best therapy available, and I recommend starting your practice immediately. Your myofascial tissue and the collagen within it are completely replaced approximately every two years. Some experts take this to mean that after two years of muscle compression and massage you can completely remodel yourself.
I have been using physical compression for the last three years to rouse dormant muscles all over my body. I was literally covered in muscles that were painful to compress lightly, and now almost all are painless even when compressed heavily. Would you please read that last sentence again? Compression forces the muscle to relax, and gives it the opportunity to reset to a lower level of tone. The idea is to press firmly into soft tissue, which includes skin, fascia, periosteum, and both superficially and deeply located muscles. Compression feeds slack into the injured muscle, reversing muscle shortening and the mechanical deformation at the joint. It breaks up adhesions between muscle fibers and disintegrates and clears scar tissue freeing the fibers to slide past each other again. Compression breaks down deposits of calcium, and accelerates venous blood drainage and lymphatic clearance. Compression also results in temporary deformation of touch sensing neurons (mechanoreceptors) under the skin, which in turn increases their activity (action potential firing) stimulating motor and vasomotor areas.
It is not clear exactly what compression does at the level of actin and myosin (proteins discussed in the last chapter), but many researchers believe that it detaches actin from myosin after they have become stuck together, allowing them to function freely again. Specific conditions that are documented to be treatable with manual compressive therapy include headaches, back pain, neck pain, shoulder pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, other peripheral nerve entrapments, shin splints, sciatica, TMJ, fasciitis, tendonitis, and many other soft tissue inflammatory disorders of the joints (Braun & Simonson, 2008). Given the bodies that we have inherited, self-applied trigger point massage is a necessary life skill.
Compress Your Tense Muscles
The most studied therapy for combatting trigger points is a form of compression called soft tissue therapy. It can also be referred to as soft tissue mobilization, or myofascial release. These involve pinning a muscle down with hard pressure for several seconds. Trigger points can be detected with the fingers, and may feel spongy, hard, or like a small length of partially cooked spaghetti deep in the muscle. Most professional masseuses describe tense muscles as having a “crunchy,” “hard” quality. Also, muscles that hold excessive tension feel hard to the touch when not flexed, but soft to the touch when flexed. You know that you have found a muscle with excessive tone if it feels tender when compressed. Healthy muscles don’t elicit a pain response under pressure. Tenderness should be your operative diagnostic criterion. Concentrate your effort on the tender mass. Apply pressure, dig and release. The muscle may tingle or feel as if it is partially paralyzed after being compressed. Allow it to stay “paralyzed” for a few seconds without reintroducing tension. Use your thumb, knuckle, fingertip, heel of the palm, or elbow to get in as deep as possible to break down the scar tissue and fibrous adhesions. Try using the tip, side, or knuckle of the thumb to compress muscles all over the body with between 5 and 25 pounds of pressure. Use a tool if possible to avoid straining your hands. Pictured below are the implements that I use to perform compression on myself. The eyebolts can be found in any hardware store, and the other implements can be found easily online, if not in your local sporting goods store.
Tools for compression: A. Theracane TM / Backknobber TM, B. C. Baseballs attached with drilled holes and metal screws. D. Spiked massage ball E. Foam therapy ball F. Softballs, G. Tennis ball, H. Squash ball, I. Yoga therapy balls TM in sack, J. 3 sizes of eye bolts (1’’ x 8’’; .75’’ x 12’’; .5’’ x 6’’), K. Knobble TM, L. jacknobber TM, M. index knobber TM. You can also use tools like a hard water bottle, rolling pin, tennis ball, racquetball, barbell, or pipe.
Muscles that feel tender when subjected to deep compression are the muscles that you have neglected to provide microbreaks. Compression gives them that much needed break and reestablishes blood flow, and full regeneration. Often the muscle will feel warm afterwards as fresh blood rushes to neglected areas. You want to perform ischemic compression; literally squeezing the blood out of the tissue. It may be helpful to imagine that you are pressing into pale, pink muscle that has lost most of its blood supply. Envision that as you press into the tender muscle it turns white as all of the blood is squeezed out. As you release, imagine fresh, red blood flooding into the area. Imagine that this redness dissipates in a few seconds, but that the muscle is now slightly more reddish than it was when you started. In reality it will be. Compression creates the cellular events necessary to express the genes necessary to build new blood vessels.
- Find a muscle that is tender when compressed. Press firmly on the muscle with the tip of the thumb, a knuckle or a tool from between 5 and 30 seconds. The compression of each trigger point should take less than a minute. On most areas of the body you can apply between 5 and 25 pounds of pressure. Release and then reposition to an adjacent area and repeat.
- Some practitioners recommend sliding down the length of the muscle. Use deep, firm strokes, moving in the direction of the muscle fibers. Others recommend stroking across the muscle repeatedly, like strumming a guitar string. Either way you want to pin the skin down and slide over the muscle, rather than sliding over the skin. I prefer to simply press into an area of tenderness rather than stroke it. If I can find a taught band of muscle I will nestle my knuckle in on one side of it and press motionlessly.
- On a scale of 1 to 10 aim for a pain level of 6 or 7. The pain should be right at the edge of tolerable discomfort before you squirm, brace, or breathe shallowly. Definitely breathe to a breath metronome while doing this.
- Once you release the muscle try to notice how the bracing in this muscle has diminished and how you feel insecure (exposed) now that you are no longer bracing it. Note the automatic tendency to either resume the bracing or breathe shallowly. Continue to breathe diaphragmatically while unbracing to force the muscle to reset to a lower level of tone.
- The next day the muscle should be completely unbruised but lightly sore to the touch. If it is sore when contracted, that means that you went too hard. The sore to the touch sensation means that you performed the compression properly. The muscle will ache more now when compressed that it did the day before, but after compressing it for a minute this soreness should disappear. After the soreness disappears wait a few hours for it to come back and compress it again to the same extent. Repeat this process until the muscle is painless to compress. Depending on the size of the muscle and the severity of the tension, this could take days, weeks or months.
Percuss Your Tense Muscles
Percussive massage is also helpful. In fact, slapping, beating, and pummeling are commonly used in massage. This kind of massage is similar to the tapotement technique in Swedish massage and certain shiatsu techniques. It may have originated long ago in Japan when children were used to massage their elders after long days bending over in the rice fields. Because the children’s fingers were not strong enough to perform a kneading motion, they balled up their hands and struck the sore muscles with their fists. The Japanese term “Magono-Te” was used to describe this type of massage, which translates to “grandchild’s hands.” The protocol below details a method that I call “percussion.”
- Use percussive compression on achy, dormant muscle.
- Use a baseball, softball or Bonger to strike muscles all over the body. For even deeper muscle work use a knuckle, eye bolt, Jack Knobber TM, or Index Knobber TM to strike.
- Use a force similar to that used during moderate clapping/applause. Strike the muscle firmly and repetitively like a sewing machine or a woodpecker. I strike between 3 and 5 times per second. Rise between 1 and 3 inches above the skin each time.
- Concentrate this pummeling action on an area an inch or two in circumference for 10 to 45 seconds.
I hit my neck, shoulders, jaw, arms, legs, knees and ankles firmly all over with objects ranging from baseballs to knuckle-sized tools. This form of tapping can also be used to locate sore muscles. When giving someone a massage, I will tap them lightly all over with a baseball and mark the areas that they reported as sore so that I can come back to treat these areas with my hands.
You should percuss your entire body with a hard implement like the “index knobber” pictured below. Doing so is one of the fastest and least painful ways to erode trigger points, and reanimate dormant muscle.
Tools for percussion: Softball, tennis ball, eye bolt (.5’’ x 6’’), jacknobber TM, index knobber TM, bonger TM. B. Tools for vibration: vibrating massagers
I strongly recommend that you spend around $100 on a handheld vibrating massager. Using it on your neck and head should give you the chills and make your body tingle, a clear sign that it is sorely needed. I use mine on muscles after I compress or percuss them to encourage them to rest. It will alleviate bracing, increase circulation and when used before bed should promote better sleep.
Getting Results from Self Massage
Applied properly, the pressure of compression and percussion should be lightly painful. If the muscle doesn’t ache when you press into it, you are not releasing it. The muscle should never hurt after you have stopped compressing, if it does you have applied too much pressure or you have found an area that is best avoided. The more you compress a tense muscle, the less painful it will be to compress in the future. The compression feels like it causes pain, but it really just reveals where pain already exists in your body. The discomfort that you feel when compressing a tense muscle is proportionate to the pain signals that it sends your brain throughout the day.
It almost seems unfair that to get rid of our pain, we have to endure pain. However, there is an optimistic perspective on soft tissue release. The muscular tension that you endure today is a product of years or even decades of tension. Consider the fact that many muscles can be greatly rehabilitated in 5 to 20, 5-minute sessions. After this, less than a minute per month can be sufficient to maintain these results. This suggests that every minute of soft tissue release reverses weeks to months of strain. Additionally, keep in mind that if you choose not to release your muscles, you are choosing to allow them to become more tense, to raise your stress and anxiety, and to perpetuate chronic pain and autonomic imbalance.
I think that the most important thing about soft tissue therapy is to appraise it positively. It is “invasive” in some ways, but you want your body to embrace the sensations that you feel rather than reject them. Like deep tissue massage, it can be relieving or traumatizing. The key is to self-soothe and to trigger the relaxation response. It is imperative to use diaphragmatic breathing in conjunction with compression. Many specialists agree that deep breathing helps the muscle spindles receive the message to stop contracting. This Chapter will highlight many areas that I think are important to compress or percuss. I also recommend using other guides to muscle release such as Jill Miller’s 2014 book “The Role Model,” and Clair Davies’ “The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook.” Some great places to start compressing are listed in the exercises below.
When I began muscle compression the pain involved was considerable. After a year of working on each of the muscles described above there is no segment of any of these muscles that is painful to compress. Compression will increase blood circulation, improve joint health, relieve muscular injuries, shorten recovery time, and reduce muscle fatigue. Aesthetically it will accentuate muscle mass, reduce the deposition of fat, improve the appearance of cellulite, and contour, tone and firm the skin. I have released muscles all over and I truly feel as if I have an entirely new body. I am stronger, more flexible, I move faster, and more gracefully. Results are cumulative. It should be everyone’s objective to release every painful muscle in the body. Finding them and learning how to compress them skillfully yourself is a challenge and the best way to learn is to receive professional massage.
Compression should never damage tissue or otherwise bruise, scrape, or even irritate the overlying skin. You don’t want to use compression on a recent injury, broken skin, or broken bones. Medical professionals advise against compressing the following body parts: the inguinal ligament, the xiphoid process, the trachea, the median nerve near the carpal tunnel junction, the sciatic nerve, and the coccyx. Also, never massage a pulse. Many arteries accumulate plaque and massaging them can dislodge this plaque resulting in blood vessel occlusion. Additionally, avoid pressing or pinching lymph nodes. If you have the following health conditions, definitely consult your doctor before receiving or self-administering massage: aneurysm, atherosclerosis, cancer, congestive heart failure, coronary artery disease, peritonitis, or polycystic kidney disease. Other conditions that are usually contraindicated for massage include fever, cirrhosis, pitting edema, blood clots, deep vein thrombosis, embolism, fainting, uncontrolled high blood pressure, intestinal obstruction, lymphangitis, myocarditis, rheumatoid arthritis, tumors, seizures, and tuberculosis, among others.
The Benefits of Professional Massage
I strongly recommend that you invest a good proportion of your disposable income, for the next few years, on deep tissue massage. Receiving quality deep tissue massage will relieve large portions of your body of pent up tension, curbing sympathetic hyperactivity, and activating pain-gate control. It has even been shown to reduce depression and trait anxiety (Moyer et. al., 2004). What is more, it stimulates the production of the brain’s pleasure chemicals such as endorphins, oxytocin, and serotonin. Raising the levels of these substances over the course of months will slowly change your outlook on life, making you a happier, more outgoing person.
I had my first massage at age 27. I came out of the massage studio angry because I felt the masseuse had pressed too firmly on my shoulder. By the time I got to my car, I realized I had a bad cramp in my deltoid. It didn’t go away for a full week. The cramp formed because I defensively contracted the muscle into a tight ball as it was being massaged, and because I was a full-on thoracic breather at the time. Compressing or percussing a muscle too hard, or when it is contracted, will make the muscle worse rather than better. This bad experience, which was my own fault, dissuaded me from returning. Reading about the scientific benefits of massage persuaded me to return to a different masseuse 5 years later. By this time I was practicing diaphragmatic breathing and this helped me to accept, rather than to brace against the massage. This second experience made me a convert.
At first the masseuses marveled at how tight my muscles were. Several masseuses voiced that they were very concerned for my well-being after feeling my neck and shoulders. They would say things like: “This isn’t good, are you o.k.?” This changed within one year of weekly deep tissue massage. It went from being painful, to not being painful at all. Every new masseuse that I went to commented that my muscles are very supple and that they have never seen anyone able to take such deep pressure. It just didn’t hurt anymore, and it hasn’t since. I attribute this completely to diaphragmatic breathing.
Just like compression, deep tissue massage should not use excessively painful pressure. A helpful massage will be uncomfortable but should not induce protective spasms. You will notice when a masseuse presses too hard on one trigger point, because other trigger points throughout the body flare up briefly. Encourage the masseuse to press hard but never to the point where the pain causes you to tense up in other areas, such as the face, neck, and back. Concentrate on corpse pose while being massaged and allow your body to go completely limp.
Most importantly, the massage is too hard if it makes you breathe shallowly, you want to be employing the rules of diaphragmatic breathing throughout the massage. Employing paced breathing is ideal. To do this, locate the breath metronome MP3 audio tracks from my website, upload them to your phone and play them during the massage. You can put the track on repeat to keep your hands free, and turn off the screen of your phone to conserve battery life. Some people find that they are sore after a massage. This happens because stiff muscles fight against the forced relaxation created by the masseuse’s hands and stay tight even afterward. You should find that if you breathe diaphragmatically during and after a massage you will not be sore (Weerapong & Hume, 2005). Since retraining my diaphragm I never experienced soreness after a massage.
A. Massage of the temporal muscles; B. Skeletal muscles of the back; C. Neck massage.
Most masseuses, whether they realize it or not, specialize in treating the muscles of respiration. This is because any muscle of the torso can be seen as a muscle of respiration because they either mobilize or stabilize the breathing motions. Remember how we said that breathing with the muscles that surround the thorax and clavicles is especially bad? Any decent massage of the neck, shoulders or back will release these muscles, helping to diminish the strain responsible for thoracic and clavicular breathing.
An added benefit of getting a massage is that you learn how a good massage manipulates muscle. You will develop the ability to perceive the physical characteristics of persistent muscle tension. Receiving massage will teach you about the location of overused areas so that you can compress them yourself. You also will find that you get better at massaging not only yourself, but others as well. Additionally, massage will condition you with dominant traits such as not to flinch or retract when touched, and to be comfortable in close physical contact with people you don’t know well.
After a high-quality deep tissue massage, you can jump higher, run faster, and benchpress more. You will find that you have more energy and endurance. I strongly recommend exercise both before after a deep tissue massage. Afterwards you want to stretch and exercise the muscles that have been released, but you don’t want to overload them. You do not want to go to a batting cage, lift heavy weights, spar, or load up a moving truck. Do these things before a deep tissue massage, but not after. Most importantly, massage will allow you to flex into, and exercise within, positions that were previously barricaded. You will find that you can contract portions of muscles that are normally completely unavailable. They become available because the massage gives them a temporary blood supply. Subsequent chapters will detail how to combine compression and massage with exercise to reopen your musculoskeletal obstructions.
Aside from targeting small, localized areas of tissue with compression and percussion it can also be therapeutic to provide firm pressure to larger areas. This is a form of delocalized pressure that stretches and compresses many muscles at the same time. This occurs when someone squeezes, or presses firmly into a large area of the body. Thai masseuses walk on the body to provide this kind of relief. Delocalized massage helps to stretch many muscles simultaneously and forces them to release, taking on new configurations outside of their normally restricted range. It will give your spinal vertebrae more play and articulation.
I recommend trying as many different masseuses as possible. Almost any massage is going to be beneficial, but only 10 to 20 percent are worth your time and money. Keep revisiting the masseuses that are the best at searching out and pressing into the aching, tense parts of your body. The best massages that I have received are not the expensive ones. The Chinese acupressure studio in the mall near my home is consistently the best. In my experience, the traditional Chinese massage philosophy has the most biological validity. They know where the trigger points are and compress them firmly while slightly varying the location of pressure every few seconds. I also recommend Thai massage, medical massage, sports massage, active release technique, myofascial release therapy, and trigger point therapy.
Tension Insanity: Excitement
The third time I had to take my friend with schizophrenia to the hospital was the most dramatic. Homeless again, he had spent a few weeks with some common friends. One of these friends was another transient who harried and browbeat him constantly. Within a week of this abuse his speech was accelerated and the things he said came from resentment and frustration. One day I was looking after him along with a woman he was dating. We watched his mental state slowly devolve over the course of just a few hours. By night time his behavior was marked by delirium and purposeless hyperactivity. In the episode I described at the beginning of this chapter, my friend was in a state of catatonic stupor. This time his condition was catatonic excitement, commonly cited as one of the most dangerous mental states in psychiatry. He was restlessly pacing, pointing, yelling, and making wild accusations, raving about a new topic every two sentences. It seemed inexhaustible. He wouldn’t let anyone touch him, and started yelling when someone came near him or made eye contact. He repeatedly jabbed his finger into the chest of our common friend while screaming. As soon as he made an aggressive physical overture toward the woman I used a wrestling takedown to bring him to the floor. I spoke to him in a friendly, authoritative way and held him firmly. I kneaded the muscles along his spine for a half hour until he was somewhat coherent again. Miraculously we were able to talk him into going back to the place he dreaded the most. I can’t imagine that anything other than massage could have done this.
This was his third admission to a psychiatric hospital in two years. After four days there he was expelled for physically fighting other patients. I spent hours searching nearby streets before I found him shivering in the cold. He was frenzied, rambling madly, with a swollen lip and a large gash over his eye. He had all of his medications stolen from him and was “crashing down” as the prescribed drugs cleared from his cerebral circulation. Withdrawal from the sedatives and antipsychotics caused his sympathetic stress system to go berserk. I realized that no matter what we did he would search out and engage the most upsetting aspect of any scenario I put us in. I checked us into a hotel in a quiet neighborhood and spent three days with him trying to be as calm and as boring as possible. Everything was overstimulating for him. I hid my phone, and took the television down to the front desk. At that time, he could only fathom what was physically in front of him, so because there was no television in the room, he didn’t miss it. Instead, I bought a few board games for us to play. I spent most of the time trying to be the perfect combination of nondominant and nonsubmissive. He tried to dominate me, he tried to act submissive toward me, and I ignored it in an effort not to reinforce it. Within three days he calmed down and became his old self again.
I practiced some breathing exercises with him. He said he liked them, but he was so restless that he couldn’t concentrate on them for more than a few seconds at a time. For this reason, every half hour I asked him to take one long, slow inhale, and one complete exhale while blowing on his finger. He said that they made him sleepy. Calming our anxiety with proper breathing can make us sleepy, but only at first. Many people assume that becoming sleepy is an unavoidable part of relaxation. It is not. Performing the diaphragmatic breathing exercises in chapter 3 over the course of several weeks will prove to you that relaxation actually sharpens attention. The next chapter will discuss the biology of how becoming calmer, paradoxically, makes you more more alert. After encouraging him to take many steady, full breaths in a row I took him to get a massage.
We went to an exceptionally light-handed, 80 pound woman who gives hour-long, full-body massages for $20 at a storefront on Hollywood boulevard. He could barely withstand it and she had to be more gentle than usual. I glanced at him and saw him shuddering, literally convulsing in what I took as the ecstasy of the woman’s touch meeting the agony of his painbody. He started moaning, and she asked him if she could continue. His reply was “please.” After a few more minutes he started sobbing, and sobbed quietly for a full 45 minutes. The other people being massaged didn’t even complain about all the noise he was making because they could tell what he was going through. A couple of hours later he looked bright, fresh, reinvigorated. He said it was the best experience of his life and asked when we could go again. Of course, he is an extreme example but this illustrated to me how vital it is to have someone press into and release our bracing patterns.
Spend Time Rubbing and Caressing
Personal grooming (or preening) is very common in animals and is a hygienic behavior aimed at extracting foreign objects from the body’s surface. It is done to remove insects, ectoparasites, leaves, dirt and twigs. Social grooming is common in mammals and involves stroking, scratching, massaging, licking and gentle biting of another animal. Even animals such as birds, horses, bats, lions and insects groom each other. Apes and monkeys groom one another regularly and the consequent trust and bonding is critical to group cohesion. It plays a role in establishing alliances, and is imperative for reconciliation after conflict (Smuts et al., 1987). It occurs during boredom as well and is one of the main ways that primates reduce stress and tension (Schino et al., 1988).
In humans and other mammals gentle, loving touch stimulates the release of beta-endorphin, a natural, healthy analgesic that attaches to the same brain receptors as morphine, heroine and other drugs derived from the opium poppy (Keverne et al., 1989). Synthetic opioid street drugs increase the traumatic load on our bodies by leading to extreme withdrawal. But increasing the levels of natural endorphins produced by your brain may be among the healthiest things you can do. Grooming, massaging, rubbing, cuddling and caressing will do this.
Do dominant primates groom a lot or a little? What would be your guess? Because the most dominant primates usually have the highest levels of circulating endorphins, they do not need to be groomed to relax, but are highly willing to groom others. Most humans do not rub or massage others. Do you? I think that many people are apprehensive about being affectionate because they are concerned that their manual skills are not good enough. They don’t want to have their efforts rejected. You can’t get good if you don’t try. A little bit of time and practice will allow you to pass that apprehensive barrier and to feel at ease touching and rubbing others.
Practice stroking and caressing another person in a smooth, rhythmic and loving way. Alternate between using your whole hand firmly, your palm gently, or the tips of your fingers lightly. Don’t hesitate, or pause and try to keep your fingers from skipping along their skin. Keep moving in an easy and fluid manner. Lightly squeeze the skin and tug it. You can rub their entire body, alternating between pressing, and caressing. If you notice them startle or shudder to your touch, keep caressing them at a slow and constant rate. It will heal their startle tendencies. This technique will work wonders for your children or pets.
Caress (like vibration) does not release hypertonic muscles in the same way that compression does. It undermines the tension from a different angle. It significantly reduces conscious bracing. However, if the person being massaged feels uncomfortable they may actually brace more, like a pet that doesn’t like to be picked up. As the one doing the touching it is your responsibility to touch them in way that causes their bracing to subside. Affectionate, attentive, and flowing movements will do this.
Try rubbing a significant other to music to help coordinate and sensualize your movements. Rubbing and massaging the scalp is one of the best ways to release endorphins. Press the tip of your thumb firmly into the upper neck and occipital muscles on the back of their head. Sensually depress, release and reposition once every two seconds. Use the thumb to stroke firmly over the hair shafts around the nape of the neck, making a crackling sound, and stimulating the copious nerve endings in the area. Try lying next to someone, nestling against them, and fondling their arm, back and shoulders. Try lying on your back and having a loved one lie on top of you, stomach to stomach, so that you can rub their back, neck, bottom, and legs with both hands.
It is known that in primates the groomer releases very similar levels of brain pleasure chemicals as the individual being groomed. Stroking a mammalian pet releases endorphins, and reduces heart rate, and blood pressure in the pet as well as in the human doing the petting (McConnell, 2002). Without a question, caressing someone else is the most pleasurable, stress-reducing and bonding activity I engage in. I believe that many people are unsated because they mistakenly seek this form of satisfaction from kissing and sex which just don’t provide it. One look at the pervasiveness of grooming in primates convinces me that our bodies are biologically prepared and expectant of being rubbed and caressed. We are doing ourselves a disservice by not doing it regularly.
Psychologists have long been intrigued by the fact that people who experience windfalls, such as winning the lottery, do not stay happy for long. Humans tend to return to a stable set point for subjective well-being, and life satisfaction shortly after major positive or negative life events. This phenomenon has been called the hedonic treadmill (Frederick et al., 1999). On a treadmill, you can increase the speed as much as you want but you won’t get anywhere. In life, you can accumulate as many riches as you want, but it likely won’t make you a happy and peaceful person. A good deal of psychological research has been conducted on this topic because if fulfilling our lifelong dreams does not increase satisfaction, what will? Massage will. The way I see it, trigger points keep us tethered to the hedonic treadmill. Winning the lottery does nothing to remove years of built up tension in our bodies. However, breathing retraining, compression, percussion and caressing do.
That man that you know in his nineties with the really bad posture, he would be spry and dexterous if only he had a monthly deep tissue massage over the course of his life. Or he could have taken a yoga class once a month. Imagine how different his body would be if he had done both weekly. Many people assume that frailty, muscle discomfort, loss of muscle mass and loss of strength is simply an inevitable concomitant of aging. It is not, it is just the cumulative toll of continuous strain. I recommend that you create a monthly budget for deep tissue massage. For the first several months spend as much of your discretionary income on it as possible. I also recommend that you recruit your friends, family members and partners to learn and practice deep tissue massage with you. It is easy to learn, and there are thousands of easily accessible lessons online. If you do it to yourself, or practice mutual massage with a loved one, it is a completely free way to increase your wellbeing.
Chapter 6 Bullet Points
- Tense, painful muscles all over the body can be repaired by different forms of compression, percussion and massage.
- Pressing firmly into tender, achy muscle provides ischemic compression, which forces the blood out of the tissue and then when released increases blood flow.
- Performed regularly, compression will restore the muscle’s blood supply, range of motion, strength, and regenerative capacity as well as reduce tension and pain.
- Muscle compression should be used together with diaphragmatic breathing, exercise, and reduction of bracing.